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Kafka in Australia: the trial of Witness K

  • 06 April 2019


Franz Kafka's book The Trial is a waking nightmare. Josef K, a bank clerk, is arrested. He is never charged, and no evidence of wrongdoing is ever revealed. For the next 12 months he undergoes a series of encounters with strange people, hearing insinuations and veiled accusations.

The narrative is filled with a sense of suffocation, like the airless rooms from which he longs to escape. He confronts the psychological weapons of suspicion, concealment and pressure being used against him, but gradually becomes more and more a willing victim, ultimately passive as he walks to his death. He succumbs to the oppression of a system which presses down on him by unexplained laws and the constant threat of an invisible but sleepless court.

Although written in 1914 before the rise of the 20th century totalitarian regimes, the book's foreboding atmosphere is a fitting herald of those dehumanising systems. 'Kafkaesque' seems such clever adjective, as though we can look back to a flawed age, and sail above the soulless system that demolished Josef K. How very wrong we are. Our own chilling version of The Trial is being played out under our very noses, in the matter of 'Witness K' and his lawyer Bernard Collaery. The similarities do not end with names. In an appalling doubling, the pursuit of Josef K is mirrored in the prosecution of Witness K.

Witness K and Collaery have been charged with making known Australian state secrets in connection with the spying on Timor-Leste undertaken by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) in 2004. Under the guise of an AusAid program, operatives bugged the walls of the Timorese prime minister's offices and listened to negotiators' planning sessions. Australia thus duped the Timorese into signing the 2006 treaty governing the split of the revenues of a section of the Timor Sea.

One of the spies, now known as Witness K, became aware that high Australian officials involved in the spying were lobbying for Woodside, an Australian oil company with interest in the area. Witness K pursued ASIS's internal processes and was advised to get a lawyer, engaging Collaery.

Once the fact of the spying was clear, the Timorese took Australia to the International Court of Justice. Both Collaery's and Witness K's premises were raided and papers seized. K's passport was taken, thus preventing him from testifying at the Hague. Meanwhile, the Timorese revoked the treaty and began negotiations for a border with